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NEWSFILE: NEW AND REDISCOVERED

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Hopes that the South Island's kokako may still be alive were raised this week when two hunters reported a possible sighting. A brief search for the supposedly extinct bird was mounted but was called off because of bad weather. A more detailed search will start in two weeks.

The search was arranged after the two men said they may have stumbled across the elusive bird while hunting in a Buller forest last Saturday. The hunters say they heard a distinctly different bird call and may have seen the bird flying low between trees. The pair were not able to identify the bird but were sure it was not black. The kokako has a steel-grey plumage.

Their sighting was reported to Timberlands West Coast staff who contacted Nelson ornithologist Rhys Buckingham. TWC staff member Rod Dalley said Mr Buckingham went into the forest area but bad weather caused him to withdraw without any further sightings.

Full bird survey planned for Inangahua Mr Buckingham would return to the Inangahua area early next month to do a full bird survey which will continue until January.

Hopes the kokako may still be alive were heightened last summer after the discovery of unusual moss grubbings, the finding of a feather, bird calls and two possible brief sightings. At that time Mr Buckingham, assisted by volunteers, stayed in the Maruia Forest area but the bird was not seen. The kokako, believed to have been extinct for 30 years, is about the size of a magpie and has distinctive orange-coloured wattles at the base of its beak.

The North Island kokako has blue wattles and is not extinct. The South Island kokako is a member of the wattlebird family and was renowned as a songbird.

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Mutant Mosquitoes

A variation on the old urban legend about albino alligators dwelling in the New York sewer system comes to us from London: Biologists say a new species of mosquito is evolving in the tunnels of the London Underground. Researchers at the University of London believe the insects are descendants of mosquitoes that colonised the tunnels a century ago when the railways were being built. Originally bird-biters, they apparently evolved new feeding behaviour, dining on rats, mice, and maintenance workers. 'It looks as if there has been a unique colonisation event, ’ says biologist Richard Nichols.

Nichols and colleague Kate Byrne have shown that the Underground mosquitoes, dubbed *molestus, * are now different from *Culex pipiens, * the bird feeders. Genetic studies revealed significant differences in the frequency of alleles at 20 different loci, suggesting that the subterranean pests are well on their way to becoming a separate species, and it is almost impossible to mate the two varieties. The team, which has a paper in press at the journal *Heredity, * also found some genetic differences between mosquitoes on different Underground lines, suggesting that drafts disperse the insects more readily along rather than between lines.

The Underground provides an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes with its moderate temperatures and pools created by water leaks, says Nichols. 'Human skin and other debris from passengers likely provide food in the pools for larvae.

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IRELAND Thursday, Sept 10, 1998 Seabed has scientists excited about new life All life, humans, plants, animals and fish, probably evolved from a primitive slime growing in utter darkness at the bottom of the Earth's oceans, and the process which originated life is most likely still under way. Scientists have discovered a new ‘hot smoker’ on the seabed of the North Atlantic, a vent along the mid-ocean ridge where the Earth's crust is pulling apart exposing its molten mantel. These vents belch out gases, chemicals and heat, and many have been found since the first was discovered 20 years ago, explained Joe Cann, professor of Earth sciences at the University of Leeds. This one is very different, however, and has the scientists who study the complex chemistry and microbial colonies which thrive at the vents very excited. It emits large amounts of hydrogen gas, thought to have been essential for the building and replication of the amino acid precursors of life as we have come to know it. The black smokers are oases in the deep ocean where no light can penetrate, but where microbial life can flourish. The society of organisms which live there rivalled the complexity and variety of the tropical rain forests, Prof Cann said. Evidence of the Earth's earliest microbes dates back 3. 86 billion years, but scientists have wondered how they could have originated and then grown in the near absence of free oxygen. ‘They must have worked using hydrogen, ’ Prof Cann suggested, also using carbon dioxide and what we know as rust ‘to kick start life’. Most vents emit large amounts of hydrogen sulphide and a little free hydrogen, but the chemical energy from hydrogen sulphide would not have been enough to allow replicating amino acids and ultimately life. The new vent, discovered last summer in a 200-metre diameter area called the Rainbow Field in the North Atlantic, gives off 15 times the usual amount of hydrogen and this gas ‘just about gives enough energy for life to start’, Prof Cann said. It is given off when a silicate mineral called peridotite reacts with seawater deep under the seabed. ‘The key to life as I see it is a planet with liquid water, volcanoes, peridotite to give off hydrogen, and when you have those things all coming together you can have life. We suspected hydrogen for the origins of life and we now have a place in the modern world where life could originate and perhaps is originating now, ’ he said. The chemical transformation towards life occurred when complex organic chemicals brewing billions of years ago around the Earth's original vents reacted together in the presence of a catalyst such as rust. Sometimes the organic slime catalysed slowly, but other organic combinations would have reacted more quickly. These faster chemicals would proliferate, repeating themselves but also recombining with accidental errors that might have introduced still faster catalytic reactions. Scientists believe this is the stuff from which life eventually emerged. If new forms and combinations were forming now around the Rainbow Field vent then they would be gobbled up quickly by the hungry microbes already living there today, Prof. Cann suggested. Dr Chris German, of the Southampton Oceanography Centre discovered both high temperatures and unexpected particles on the surface above the vent and tracked its plume down to the mid-Atlantic ridge. A French researcher, Dr Jean Luc Charlou, of Ifremer, in Brest, then used a submersible to dive down and actually pinpoint the hydrogen vent. It lies under 3. 5km of water with temperatures next to the vent reaching 36 2 C. The near by microbes survive temperatures of about 110 C.

A tiny, transparent, still-nameless fish swimming in the Araguaia River in the Amazon Basin comes out at night to suck blood from its victims. It wriggles into the orifices of animals, anchors itself with two hook-shaped teeth, and gorges on blood. The gills of other fish are its usual targets, but the orifices of other animals, including humans, are fair game, too. This Amazonian fish is only about 1 centimetre (less than 1/2 inch)long, making it smaller than the infamous candirus that threaten bathers in other South American streams. Once a candiru slithered into a cut on a researcher and could be seen wriggling under the skin toward a vein. Candirus also anchor themselves inside their victims' orifices, requiring surgical removal. (Homewood, Brian; ‘Vampire Fish Show Their Teeth, ’ *New Scientist*, p. 7, December 3, 1994)

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New Robin Species Found in Africa

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) - American scientists claim they have discovered a new robin species in the Central African Republic, a find ornithologists say illustrates how little is known about birds in Africa.

Pamela Beresford announced the discovery at the 22nd International Ornithological Congress, which has brought together more than 1,000 of the world's leading birders in this eastern coast city. The meeting will continue through Saturday.

A graduate student with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Beresford first encountered the bird in November 1996 , during a World Wildlife Fund-sponsored survey in the Central African Republic. ‘When we first collected it we thought it was a typical forest robin, but when we tried to classify it we realized we had something new, ’ Beresford said.

The small olive-brown bird is similar to other forest robins except that its throat and upper breast are bright yellow-red and it stomach is a shade of yellow. Other forest robins typically have white stomachs and upper breasts. Beresford had to examine some 300 specimens from 89 different areas at seven museums before she was convinced it was a new species.

‘Sometimes you know right away that it's a new bird, sometimes you have to look at other specimens, ’ said Dr. Joel Cracraft, curator of the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Ornithology and co-discoverer of the bird.

Beresford declined to provide other details such as the bird's name, height and weight until after a full scientific description is published - probably sometime next year.

The robin is one of the most common low-flying birds in the lowland African rain forest. It just hasn't been recorded before because there’s still so much ground to cover. ‘There’s never been an inventory of Central African rain forest before us, ’ Beresford said.

Dr. Phil Hockey, a professor of ornithology at the University of Cape Town, said that while the new robin is an exciting find, it may only be one of many more to come. ‘Ten or so years ago, ornithologists were saying that by now all the bird species would be known. But today new species are popping up all over the place, ’ said Hockey.

He said there is also a new lark and a new cisticola species awaiting description as well as a host of birds, who have been seen but not yet captured, that scientists suspect are new species.

Many areas like eastern Cameroon, north-western Congo and northern Mozambique haven't been studied because of their remoteness and political instability, and are likely to harbour new species, said Hockey.

Over the last 50 years, 47 new species have been found using what Hockey called the ‘pith helmet and butterfly net technique’ - in other words, by birders going out into the forest and catching new specimens.

Many more new species have been discovered in recent years through modern techniques. DNA analysis has shown that birds of similar appearance that were thought to belong to the same species are in fact genetically quite different.

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August 17, 1998

It's no accident that Navassa Island is one of America's most isolated places. Few spots on Earth could be more hostile to human habitation than this slab of jagged, broiling-hot limestone off the coast of Haiti.

Christopher Columbus's shipmates declared the island worthless when they visited briefly in 1504. The first explorers found no food or water but an abundance of scorpions, poisonous plants and razor-sharp rocks that sliced through boots and demolished boats.

For the next five centuries, Navassa remained almost completely deserted, except for a stint in the 1800s, when it was mined for guano, or bird manure. Until last week, not even the U. S. government, the titular owner, knew the island harboured extraordinary riches - an astonishing wealth of biologically unique creatures and plants that have managed to thrive here, virtually free of human interference.

The scale of Navassa's riches came to light last week when a team of researchers announced the results of the first scientific expedition there in more than a century. Combing every inch of the tiny dot of an island, the scientists counted more than 800 species, many of which are believed to exist nowhere else in the world. As many as 250 species are believed to be entirely new to science, expedition leaders said. They reported being equally astonished by the condition of the island's coral reefs, which are so pristine they offer a glimpse of what the Caribbean may have looked like before Columbus.

‘It was like looking into an aquarium, ’ said Nina Young, a scientist with the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation who co-led the expedition. ‘Navassa may possess some of the most pristine and healthy coral reefs in the U. S. - and perhaps in the whole Caribbean. ‘

The excitement centres on a desert island that is barely two square miles, or about nine times the size of the National Mall in Washington. The tip of a submerged mountain, Navassa is 40 miles west of Haiti and 200 miles from the mainland of the United States, which claimed Navassa in 1857 under a law that asserted U. S. sovereignty over any uninhabited island that contained guano, a valuable fertiliser. Although it was ‘discovered’ by Europeans before the North American mainland, Navassa was bypassed by colonists because of its lack of fresh water and its exceptionally harsh terrain. Steep rocky cliffs on all sides make Navassa a natural fortress, unassailable by wooden landing craft. The Interior Department, which is responsible for administering the island, forbids unauthorised visits because of the dangers posed by the rock-studded surf.

Navassa's inland areas are only slightly less treacherous. The 14 government, university and private scientists who conducted the two-week expedition had to slowly pick their way across a landscape of jagged, cratered limestone made blisteringly hot by the Caribbean sun.

‘It was like Swiss cheese or a honeycomb, but more irregular, ’ said Michael Smith, a senior scientist with the Center for Marine Conservation and the other expedition co-leader. ‘When you're walking, you're jumping rim to rim over the holes. ‘

Besides cuts and scrapes from sharp rocks, the researchers had to watch for poisonous critters - ‘The island is very rich in scorpions, ’ Smith noted dryly - and poison ivy-like plants, including the ubiquitous ‘poison wood’ tree that soon had most expedition members scratching.

But the island's many crevices and terraces also contained a diversity of life that scientists say is extraordinary for such a small and dry place. The 800 terrestrial plants and animals the researchers documented on Navassa exceeds by four times the number previously believed to be on the island. Besides feral dogs and goats left behind by miners and fishermen, scientists found unique species of lizards, wingless crickets and other creatures that had evolved during aeons of isolation. ‘We've barely begun to sort through the scientific specimens, ’ Smith said.

But there were also prominent absences. The rock iguana, an endemic species described by 19th-century visitors, appears to have vanished, possibly eaten into extinction by the 200 guano miners who stripped most of the phosphorous-rich topsoil off the island's lower terraces a century ago.

Divers who surveyed the island's reefs found a ‘spectacular’ richness of creatures and hues, said the Center for Marine Conservation's Young. Elkhorn corals and spiny urchins that have been wiped out by disease elsewhere in the Caribbean were healthy and thriving.

‘You're struck by the vibrant colours, ’ including the deep lavenders and reds of sea sponges and fans in what is perhaps ‘the best diving . . . in U. S. waters, ’ Young said.

But the scientists' enthusiasm was tempered by concerns about what may happen after word spreads of Navassa's pristine richness. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, conservationists are trying to prevent further destruction of reefs that have been blighted by pollution and disease or damaged by careless divers and boaters.

The Interior Department, which co-sponsored the scientific expedition, must now decide how best to protect the island against the inevitable assault. Possible options include turning Navassa into a wildlife refuge or ‘special management zone, ’ said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who vowed there would be no repeat here of the ‘melancholy record of the coral reef. ‘

‘I can tell you this doesn't seem to be the place for a Hilton Hotel or a resort, ’ Babbitt said. ‘But we also don't want to say, ’Here's a fabulous asset - but you, the owners, aren't allowed to see it. ' ‘

(The Washington Post Company)

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The Globe & Mail (Aug 21, 1998, p. A24)

‘British scientists have discovered a mouse in Ecuador that catches fish. The Andes rodent is almost blind; however, it locates fish with its long, sensitive whiskers and drags them from the water with its front paws. ‘

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Fish on the slab was 36 0 million years old

London [UK] Telegraph 7 Oct 1998

INDONESIAN shark hunters have astonished biologists by catching a deeply primitive fish which can be traced back 36 0 million years and was once thought to be the ancestor of all land-dwelling creatures.

The coelacanth was thought to have become extinct 80 million years ago until a living specimen was discovered in 1938 off South Africa. But interest in the lumbering species, which is believed to hold the answer to an abundance of evolutionary puzzles, has caused its numbers to dwindle until there were only 500 known coelacanth left, all living around the Comoros Islands near Madagascar.

Scientists announce today, however, that they have discovered an entirely new, second population living thousands of miles away. They are puzzled by how the fish, which grows up to five feet in length, could have escaped the attention of biologists when Indonesian fishermen seem to know it well.

The creature was spotted by a scientist's wife in a fish market in Manado, Indonesia, last year. Dr Mark Erdmann, of the University of California, said: ‘We only managed to take some photographs and briefly interview the fisherman before it was sold. ‘ Colleagues searched for a year before discovering another on July 30, off Indonesia's Manado Tuaisland.

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Hog deer thought extinct for 50 years found being kept as pets

In clearings in Sri Lanka's vast stretches of cinnamon groves and tropical forest, a Buddhist monk, a homemaker and a bicycle mechanic are breaking the law.

Each could be jailed for six months for keeping endangered hog deer in captivity. But, in a curious turn of events, conservationists are thanking them.

Had they not preserved the species as pets, Sri Lanka would have lost them forever.

Nandana Atapattu, deputy director of Sri Lanka's Department of Wildlife Conservation, has combed southern Sri Lanka's cinnamon-growing area for four years in search of the animal which, as the name suggests, somewhat resembles a pig.

The gentle-tempered, endearingly awkward deer nearly disappeared from Sri Lanka five decades ago. But in 1992, Mr Atapattu's department found two hog deer being kept as pets at Batapola, a hamlet 96 km south of Colombo. ‘Since then I have been spending my free time meeting villagers, schoolchildren and asking them about hog deer, ’ Mr Atapattu said.

He plans to keep domesticated hog deer until they learn to live on their own, then release them into one of Sri Lanka's dozen national parks.

Hog deer have a thickset appearance and peculiar gait. The animal runs with its head down and at times collides with fellow deer, other animals and even trees. India, Burma, Thailand, Indochina and Sri Lanka are the known habitat of the hog deer. They are listed as endangered in all five. The hog deer's downfall was its love of rubbing its body against sweet-scented cinnamon trees, destroying the precious bark that is the spice. Male hog deer often damage cinnamon trees by digging at the roots. The deer also eat cinnamon leaves.

Mr Atapattu and his men have found 20 captive hog deer. As he was leaving one village, one of his volunteers brought news that a hog deer was being kept in a bicycle repair shop in another village. The bicycle mechanic handed his pet over with some reluctance.